Judge Ian Visser has lived on both Nightmare Alley and Sugarmuffin Lane. One had significantly better crepes than the other.
Our review of Nightmare Alley (2010), published March 25th, 2011, is also available.
Something wicked this way comes.
A great film noir effort, Nightmare Alley is a decidedly grim picture that rewards fans with a solid viewing experience.
Facts of the Case
Stanton Carlisle is a low-level carnival barker, working small towns across the country. When he learns of a professional secret held by Zeena (Joan Blondell, The Cincinnati Kid), a "mentalist" in the traveling show, his ambition takes hold. Betraying Zeena and stealing her methods of mind reading, Stanton heads for the big city to profit from his new abilities. But as his ambition grows, the house of cards he builds begins to crumble around him, and Stanton must assume more dangerous and deceitful methods to prevent his fall.
Nightmare Alley has been long unavailable on home video due to rights issues. Now it sees the light of day on the Fox Noir collection line.
The idea that a carnival is not all candy floss and fun-rides is not new. Even today, while places like Disneyland and Six Flags promote healthy family fun, carnivals are still tinged with uncertainty and the dirty thrill of risk. From Something Wicked This Way Comes to the recent HBO series Carnivale, the noir genre easily slithers its way right into a setting where people are just as desperate and unsavory as any urban center. Nightmare Alley does something challenging with film-noir: it moves the action from the gritty urban streets to a new location while still adhering to the nature of the genre.
Nightmare Alley has none of the fog-choked streets or shoot-outs that many associate with the genre, but it uses the tension and uncertainty created by its characters to preserve the atmosphere in an untraditional setting. Orson Welles pulled a similar trick in The Lady from Shanghai, moving the action from the urban arena to the close quarters of a Caribbean cruise. Director Edmund Goulding (whose Grand Hotel won a Best Picture Oscar in 1932) knows the rules to this game, making Stanton feel the self-made prison walls moving in to trap him, even as he winds higher up society's ladder.
There is no doubt that Nightmare Alley is among the grimmest of noir pictures. Although the film's ending provides some redemption for the main character, the journey he takes through the picture is one of unrelenting selfishness and betrayal. Stanton is willing to use and abuse anyone he can, and his eventual transformation into that which he most dreads is harsh even for a genre that demanded evil-doers get what was coming to them. There are no happy endings in Nightmare Alley, just the realization that happy endings are best left to fairy tales.
Tyrone Power (The Sun Also Rises) does a fine job as Stanton Carlisle, the greenhorn carny that jumps at his chance to exploit others for his own gain. Power's performance is a little flat, but it works well for a character that has no real ambition outside of what he can gain from others. The role marked something of a switch for Power, who was mostly known for romantic turns until this point. The supporting characters do an equally solid job. As his young, suffering wife, Coleen Gray (Red River) is naïve but loyal, and her ultimate realization of Stanton's true character is well portrayed. And as his confederate, Helen Walker (Call Northside 777) plays her role as psychiatrist and femme fatale with a cool edge that comes back to bite Stanton hard. Her character is one of the best of the genre; neither Stanton nor the audience sees her coming.
The fullframe presentation is in good shape. There is some noticeable grain and dirt on the image, but overall this is a fine transfer. The all-important black levels are solid, and the picture is quite sharp. Noir fans should be pleased with this effort. Both the Dolby Digital audio tracks are decent, and strike a good balance between the audio and musical score. There is little noise or hum on either track.
Fox Home Entertainment has provided a good selection of special features for this disc. A commentary track by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver provides a lot of background material on the production and the genre itself. Although the commentary is sometimes a little dry, there are few dead spots, and the information helps the viewing experience. Also included is a theatrical trailer for Nightmare Alley and several other trailers from the Fox Noir collection.
Nightmare Alley may not have the typical genre ingredients of gangster molls and gunfire, but that's no reason to overlook this solid effort. Fox Home Entertainment is commended for releasing a great noir film with enough special features to make it a solid buy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historians James Ursini and Alain Silver
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